Did you know that Austin’s celebrated Mueller neighborhood used to be an airport? Yeah, sure, laugh it up — you might think that’s common knowledge if you’ve lived around here for a while, but what if you got here yesterday? The only two remaining elements of the 700-acre neighborhood that really hit you over the head with this history are the Browning Hangar and the former airport’s midcentury control tower, which still stands behind a fence near Berkman Drive despite the unfortunate demolition of its surrounding terminal structure.
We’ve been wondering what the future held for Mueller’s tower since the early 2000s, and now that construction is underway on a 345-unit apartment complex by developer Ryan Companies essentially surrounding the tower site, there’s a bit more clarity on how the tower and its immediate surroundings will be transformed into a public space by Mueller’s neighborhood developer Catellus, with an outdoor plaza designed by landscape architecture firm Studio Balcones.
A presentation by the firm’s co-founder Ilse Frank to the city’s advisory commission for the Mueller plan earlier this month gave us a closer look at the final design of the park space, which will be called Roger Lavon Taylor Sr. Plaza after the late president of the J.J. Seabrook Neighborhood Association, who pushed for moving the Mueller airport due to its noise impacts on surrounding residents. Unlike the original version of the design we saw in 2021, the final layout for the plaza keeps a healthy distance from the historic tower itself — its elevated walkway, previously shown surrounding the tower on all sides, has been pulled back a bit. We’ve compared the two plans below, with the new version shown when you pull the slider all the way to the right:
This change seems to indicate there’s a remaining bit of mystery surrounding what’s happening to the tower itself down the road, and Frank’s presentation of the project simply notes that a restoration project of some kind for the structure is planned in a later phase, involving local architecture firm Studio8. Representatives of Catellus have repeatedly mentioned a desire to do something with the interior of the tower, despite the retrofitting of its tight spaces for ADA compliance and fire safety representing a very specific sort of nightmare for design professionals.
The tower’s still the focal point of the whole space, with additions like seating, tables, a shaded lawn, and a grand staircase leading to the site’s elevated walkway providing great views of the preserved structure. The plaza seamlessly connects with the pedestrian paseo splitting the Ryan Companies apartment project surrounding the site, and the plaza and paseo’s location next door to John Gaines Park means that once all these features are completed, this section of Mueller will offer a walkable pedestrian corridor spanning multiple blocks.
We don’t have a firm idea of when this plaza will be completed just yet, and there’s presumably still the possibility of some design elements seen here changing — but as Mueller builds out its remaining empty lots we’re glad to see this kind of consideration given to public space alongside its housing and commercial components.
Even with all the new stuff seen here, the open question of whether the control tower still standing at the heart of it all will someday serve a purpose beyond an inaccessible historical monument to the neighborhood’s past remains a bit of a tease. Even so, the stewardship of the building will be a lot more relevant in future discussions when it’s surrounded by a nice walkable plaza instead of a fence, so we’re happy to wait a while longer on whatever comes next. Can we suggest wrapping the tower with a giant slide?